Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.
When I see something written about study abroad, I assume it’ll be a puff piece. A piece detailing the good memories, good food and good friends. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. In fact, if you got home at the end of your time abroad and had not checked off those three boxes, you might want to consider turning around.
Much of studying abroad is immersing yourself in a culture and enjoying things that are too often ignored at home because of extracurricular activities, jobs and other responsibilities. You will have time to stumble upon a food festival in a small Irish town or secretly celebrate the Fourth of July in England.
But now, during an unprecedented global health emergency, much of my time abroad has become bittersweet. My perspective on the five weeks I spent taking classes in Cambridge, England over the summer and the four months I spent studying in Galway, Ireland, this past fall, has changed.
My first impressions of my time abroad were freeing. New people, new towns and a new way of life. I learned law from a Cambridge professor who was an adviser to the Queen of England and then got the opportunity to see the Queen myself from just a few feet away. I walked by the ruins of a medieval castle every day on my way to school in Ireland, and on the way back I would watch kayakers battle the rapids of the River Corrib.
Being abroad seemed like a clean slate to enjoy being young in a different place and to learn from people from around the world.
I could try dishes I did not know existed and take classes on topics I had never heard of. I realized that being abroad was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I might look back on fondly, and even if it didn’t go well, I would leave in four months.
Those four months slipped by too quickly, which is something else you’ll hear quite a bit. When it was time to leave, I had mixed emotions. I was thankful for the time I had spent in the little fishing village of Galway and studying law at the University of Cambridge. But I knew that when I left, even if I came back one day, I could never recreate those incredible opportunities.
Never again would I be able to take a field trip to Connemara National Park and visit an archeological dig in hidden caves. Nor could I get the Cambridge University student discount on tickets to the Tower of London. I started feeling nostalgic for the times where my friends and I drank tea in the gardens of an Irish castle before I had even begun to travel home.
I spent the first few weeks of the spring semester wishing I could go back to Galway and many of my peers did the same for their own towns. The worst of it wasn’t even all the questions about whether abroad ‘changed me.’ I felt as if nothing back home in the U.S. could be the same, and I worried that I might never get that feeling of adventure again.
To make matters worse, the racist, sexist and homophobic incidents in the form of residence hall slurs, crude videos and Zoombombings did nothing to make me feel comfortable back at college. I was frustrated and angry with my school and wanted nothing more than to pack a bag and be on the first flight to Ireland, where my biggest concern had been sheep wandering into the road.
Now, during week six of living in my childhood bedroom, taking classes online and being restricted to walks around the block by stay-at-home orders, my perspective has changed.
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I see just how lucky I was to travel and study abroad.
I managed to learn how to play Gaelic football, picnicked outside of King’s College and hiked along the Cliffs of Moher just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down international travel. I also see how lucky I was to come home to a college with people who organized protests and called for change. This feeling of luck made me rethink how I would define being abroad.
Abroad is not just the people you meet in Irish pubs and the old friends you get closer to. It isn’t just the black pudding you eat just to tell your Nana that you tried it, and it isn’t just the places you travel to, whether it be weekend trips to famous cities or bike rides along the Aran Islands.
It’s an experience that leaves you with the feeling that everyone around the world craves more than anything right now: the feeling of life as it was before.
I spent those first few weeks of the spring semester trying and failing to replicate abroad when I should have been appreciating what I had at home. I was outside! I was in crowded rooms! I ate Jimmy John’s with my friends! I did not think twice about getting to see a friend or my ability to walk to class.
Now that I am home, I quickly shifted from missing traditional Irish breakfasts to just missing sitting down at my favorite coffee shop two blocks away from my house, which is now closed indefinitely. This shift in perspective made me understand just what being abroad has taught me about making the most of new situations.
In this piece, desperately trying to avoid the clichéd notions of abroad, I’ll leave you with just about the biggest cliché of all: Enjoy the little things. Enjoy the adventures to the grocery store and the joy in learning new things about your family. Enjoy the freedom of walking a dog outside and the privilege of being healthy.
Sure, one day you’ll go and travel far away and have more than enough adventure and freedom, but for now we must reflect on the memories we have and our actions that will get us through this event as a global community. We have to be thankful to those essential workers risking their lives to give us the little bit of adventure we have now. I hope that when we go back outside, we see this adventure in the little things we do every day, no matter where in the world we are.
Maybe this is a puff piece, but I think the world could use a puff piece right now.
Contact contributor Claire Conslato at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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